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While most of us would balk at having to pay more than $20 or $30 for a cable, there are certainly a lot of folks out there, including audio enthusiasts, who already swear by more expensive cables, claiming that spending more for better wiring, insulation, shielding, and other factors can make a big difference.
Some of this is undoubtedly “snake oil” that simply triggers a placebo effect, since after all if you’re an audiophile that’s paying hundreds, or even thousands of dollars for cables, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that you can hear an improvement by spending more on your wires.
Of course, up to a point, better cables do make a difference, but it’s hard to believe that anybody can justify spending $39,000 for a speaker cable.
So compared to that it shouldn’t seem nearly as outrageous that Apple is now selling a $129 Thunderbolt 3 Pro cable — except by the standards of data cables, of course.
You see, although one can make a (largely subjective) case that audio sounds better when you spend more on cables, it’s pretty hard to argue that digital bits of data travel better across a more expensive cable. Digital data is digital data — it either gets there or it doesn’t, and the 1’s and 0’s don’t really care how comfortable the ride is as long as they make it to the other end in one piece. They’re used to travelling cargo class.
But… $129? For a Data Cable?
To be clear, Apple’s $129 Thunderbolt 3 Pro cable is two metres long, and it features a durable braided design that you don’t often see in first-party Apple cables of any kind.
This kind of design has traditionally been the exclusive realm of cables that ship with the Mac Pro, and in fact prior to going on sale separately, this particular Thunderbolt cable only came in the box with Apple’s $5,000 Pro Display XDR — Apple only began selling it quietly on the Apple Store more recently.
So what’s so special about this cable other than the design? Well, apparently there’s actually nothing else on the market that can do what this does for less money.
This isn’t just a Thunderbolt 3 cable, but it’s a “Pro” Thunderbolt 3 cable that’s designed to support the very fastest data transfer speeds — up to 40Gbps — plus full compatibility with the 10Gbps data transfer speeds of USB 3.1 Gen 2, plus DisplayPort output on top of that.
It’s a fact that Thunderbolt cables still don’t come cheap. Even though they use the same connector, Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C are actually two different standards; a USB-C cable may sell for less, but it can’t do the same job.
For example, if you try doing data transfer between two Thunderbolt 3 equipped Macs over a plain old USB-C cable, it’s not going to work — macOS knows the difference, and it will tell you flat-out that you’re not using a compatible cable.
The reverse of course is also true — if a Thunderbolt 3 cable isn’t certified to the latest USB specs, you may find that it performs great with purely Thunderbolt devices, but limits your USB devices to the comparatively sluggish 480Mbps USB 2.0 speeds.
For example, Apple sells Belkin’s two-metre Thunderbolt 3 cable for only $79.95, but as The Verge notes, this one supports neither DisplayPort nor USB 3.1, so it’s really only good if every single device you’re going to plug in uses Thunderbolt 3, and to add insult to injury, it also isn’t braided.
That said, it’s also actually harder to build longer Thunderbolt 3 cables than you might think due to the data transfer speeds involved, and if a cable is going to promise to deliver a full 40Gbps transfer rate to the other end, it has to make sure that there’s nothing slowing the digital bits of data down along their journey. This is why shorter cables are generally a bit more reasonably priced — Apple sells a 0.8-meter Thunderbolt 3 cable with the exact same specs as its $129 “Pro” cable, although it’s the more traditional white rubber look rather than the nicer black braiding, which also likely makes up for part of the price difference as well.
At the end of the day, a $129 Thunderbolt 3 Pro cable is not something that most Apple users are ever likely going to need, and there are certainly less expensive options to get the job done. However, as a a number of Reddit users are pointing out, if you’re doing the kind of work and have the kind of equipment where this level of Thunderbolt connectivity will make an actual difference, $129 is actually a drop in the bucket.